Monday, March 8, 2004


By Elise Nakhnikian

If I had a boat
I'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat

I’m thinking about that Lyle Lovett lyric because I just saw Hidalgo, an old-fashioned action adventure about a cowboy (played by the King himself, Lord of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen) and his faithful horse, Hidalgo. Like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, where the two are working when the movie starts, the movie’s full of hokum but fun to watch, and it’s catnip for the kids — especially boys, I suspect — who are its main target. The preteens in the front rows at the showing I went to were galvanized by it, pumping their fists in the air at the end.

Frank Hopkins is a burned-out former soldier, trying to drown his memories of the Wounded Knee massacre in alcohol, when a sheik (Omar Sharif) tracks him down. It seems the sheik is insulted by Buffalo Bill’s claim that Hidalgo is the greatest endurance runner in the world. To put that claim to rest, he wants Hopkins and his horse to compete against more than 100 champion Arabians in the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000-mile race across the Arabian Desert. Hopkins accepts the challenge — and yup, he rides Hidalgo right onto that boat.

Right from the start, there’s so much talk about “impure” blood and infidels that you know our plucky American heroes — a half-breed Indian and a valiant little mustang — will beat those snooty old-world thoroughbreds. But first they have to overcome showy obstacles like an avalanche of a sandstorm and a pit full of sharpened stakes. They have to perform daring feats like rescuing the sheik’s feisty daughter from kidnappers. And Hopkins has to kill quite a few bad guys, including a bunch that go after Hidalgo in an attempt to rig the race so their employer’s horse can win.

This kind of movie is easy to ruin. Make the cliches too campy and you leach out the drama; amp up the emotions too high and you’ve got a lead balloon like Last Samurai, another story of a traumatized 19th-century war hero who regains his honor in a foreign land. Cruise’s star vehicle was grounded by his somber self-regard. Hidalgo is weighed down a bit too by its a bombastic, Titanic-style soundtrack and too many speeches about being true to yourself, but on the whole it’s as nimble as its four-legged hero.

Director Joe Johnson, who debuted with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, probably deserves the credit for keeping things light. The story originated with screenwriter John Fusco, and it might have gone the way of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, an animated feature Fusco wrote that hammered home its message with all the subtlety of a pneumatic drill. Like Hidalgo, Spirit centered around a horse and portrayed Native Americans as saintly and wise. In Hidalgo, the sympathy still lies with the “people of the horse” — in this case, Bedouins and Lakota Sioux — but it takes itself less seriously, refrains from anthropomorphizing the horses, and doesn't paint all the white men as bad or all the brown ones as good.

Mortensen fits neatly into the movie's mythic mold, roping us in by underplaying his emotions in classic cowboy style. A laconic hero who talks almost as much to his horse as he does to other people, he also brings a wry, comic-book humor to the part, sounding John-Wayne tough when he drawls, just before punching out a man who insulted Hidalgo: “Mister, you can say anything you want about me. I’m gonna have to ask you not to talk about my horse that way.”

The movie claims it was “based on the life of Frank T. Hopkins,” but it would have been more accurate to say it was based on his stories. There was indeed a Hopkins who wrote a lot about mustangs, but people who looked into those stories have found that several — including his claims to have served in the U.S. Cavalry and performed in the Wild West show — appear to be untrue. More to the point, many people believe that Hopkins could not have ridden in the Ocean of Fire because there was no such race: he invented the whole thing, they say.

That wouldn’t surprise me, but it doesn’t bother me either. Even if the story was true, it’s clearly been fictionalized past the point of recognition. So why did the folks at Disney choose to pitch it that way? Could they think we’ve have gotten too literal-minded to enjoy a good old-fashioned western with a twist? If so, they need to talk to Lyle.